I’ll admit to it up front: I love hotels, the fancier the better. Not that I can’t fall in love with the small and intimate, the charming and authentic. But I don’t want that “just-like-home” feel from my hotel room…“I want magic,” in the words of Tennessee Williams, something extraordinary, something transporting, something, yes, grand—which is nowhere in the world more concentrated than at the six palace hotels of Paris, so called for their historic significance. Let’s start with the hard facts of the matter: The simplest double room at any one of these ancien palaces will set you back $930 a night. So if that’s a problem, turn the page, next feature. But if it’s not, let’s look at what it gets you.
The Plaza Athénée (25 Av. Montaigne; 33-1/53-67-66-65; plaza-athenee-paris.com) is to my way of thinking the most intimate and charming of the six. I adore its elegant, perfectly proportioned lobby, the three-star Alain Ducasse restaurant (with the chef’s own—albeit invitation-only—private table in the downstairs kitchen), the verdant courtyard (magically transformed during the holidays into a kids’ ice skating rink), and the deeply hypnotic bar (and bartender Laurent Hullo). I adore the Vuitton shop windows across Avenue Montaigne and just knowing I can always grab the chicest croque-monsieur in Paris at La Terrasse Montaigne. There are 191 rooms, 45 of them suites. My favorites are the ones that retain a certain old-fashioned atmosphere; room 202 ($3,020), where I stayed in February, has floor-to-ceiling windows and a lovely view of the Avenue.
“What else could you possibly want?” insists my friend Frances, a fanatic about the Ritz Paris (15 Place Vendôme; 33-1/43-16-30-30; ritzparis.com). “The Place Vendôme is Paris!” And so, too, is the Ritz, which is, after all, where Coco Chanel decamped and Vogue’s Anna Wintour still stays (though not in the $10,600-a-night Chanel Suite). High-priced suites are easy to find. Much tougher is that perfect double—rooms like 208, 514, or 526, all of which overlook the hotel’s garden. (That’s what you really want, not the views of the Place Vendôme, beautiful as it is.) Until 2 A.M. every night, the Hemingway Bar is always an option, and says our friend in the know: “Manfred Mautsch is called something like ‘guest relations manager,’ but in actual fact he is the man who knows everything—and can do anything for you if you know to ask.”
Franka Holtmann, the general manager at Le Meurice (228 Rue de Rivoli; 33-1/44-58-10-10; lemeurice.com
), is the first and only female general manager of a palace hotel—and she rules. Or is it rocks? It was Holtmann who brought in designer Philippe Starck to shake up the hotel’s traditional grandeur. And so he did, beautifully. Pluses here include Starck’s elegant ground-floor flourishes, the three-star dining, graceful service, and the fact that every room has been recently updated and refreshed (or will be very soon). My own favorites are rooms 524 and 528, from whose porthole-shaped windows you can see all the way to Montmartre.
The Hôtel de Crillon (10 Place de la Concorde; 33-1/44-71-15-00; crillon.com) has always seemed the most formal of the palace hotels, lacking the intimacy of, say, the Plaza Athénée. Still it’s located right on the Place de la Concorde and is within a short walk of the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Champs-Elysées. Grand and very old-fashioned, its Bernstein Suite ($11,850) may have the greatest terrace in Paris.
Walking into the Hôtel Le Bristol (112 Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré; 33-1/53-43-43-00; hotel-bristol.com), just a few blocks from the main action on Faubourg Saint-Honoré, one would never suspect there is an enormous flower-filled private garden off the restaurant. Or a pool designed by Aristotle Onassis’s shipbuilder. The restaurant is a very serious Michelin-starred affair, run by Eric Frechon and called, appropriately enough, the Gastronomic Restaurant. Some of the rooms—718 and the penthouse, 738—are still all done up in lavender toile de Jouy; in September a new seven-story wing opened, with 26 rooms and a more casual dining spot called 114 Faubourg.
At the Four Seasons George V (31 Av. George V; 33-1/49-52-70-00; fourseasons.com), just off the Champs-Elysées, there’s all the superb service and “good taste” you’d expect from a Four Seasons. Some find the whole experience a bit over-the-top—the Jeff Leatham floral extravaganzas, the cavalcade of chandeliers, the immensity of the rococo spaces. But I say let them eat their cake elsewhere. I’ll have my gâteau chez Eric Briffard, whose cooking at the hotel’s Le Cinque is exquisite.